Archive for August, 2008

My United States of Whatever

Posted in Uncategorized on August 25, 2008 by wally426

08-22-2008  Minneapolis, Mn

I awoke to the sound of country music drifting lazily into my ears through the open window. The telltale drawl was enough to rouse me from a fitful night’s sleep. I was in an Applebee’s parking lot in Minot, North Dakota, still tipsy from the cheap beer I’d drank the night before. I glanced over and saw the music’s source. A scruffy man with a cowboy hat sat in his pickup, collecting his thoughts over a Marlboro breakfast before heading into work. Even though the Dodge Magnum I’d rented in Detroit was roomy, sleep always proves to be elusive when you’re trying to find it in a car. After wrenching my back into place and wiping the sleep from my eyes, I set back onto the dusty North Dakota roads, unsure of where the day would take me.

Since arriving two-days earlier, I was still in awe of this strange place. It seemed like the land that time forgot, a completely raw and uncut version of America’s heartland of the 1950’s. Its people were all polite, but had a curt demeanor that made you very aware of being an outsider. They were in a sense similar to the corn fields that covered the landscape, looking beautiful from afar, gracefully waving in the persistent wind, but cutting and tough to navigate once you stepped inside. I drove aimlessly through the criss-crossing maze of country roads as the sun sheepishly crept above the horizon. This was by far the flattest place I had ever seen. You could see the rusty grain silos and freight trains passing through towns that were miles away. I remembered Sarah’s father describing his hometown in Saskatchewan and thought the line fit perfectly to this landscape – You could sit on the porch and watch your dog run away for hours.

So far, I had not seen the barren landscape that had been put forth in the National Geographic article. As dusty as the roads were, fields of green corn and bright yellow sunflowers seemed to stretch into an infinite palate of color. Perhaps the sheer openness of the place put a haunting feeling of desolation into the heart of the author? Even if one isn’t agoraphobic, feeling the wind whipping across the open plains can produce on odd sort of fear, almost a sense of permanent loneliness. I experienced that feeling for the first time while hiking into the badlands the day before.

During the Indian wars of the 1860’s, one soldier described the scene when they first saw the area:

In front there was no indication of anything but an almost level plain, but suddenly the head of the column halted, and, riding to the front, I found the general and the advance guard gazing down at the Bad Lands. As I halted beside the general he said, ‘This is hell with the fires put out.’ The description was brief, but to the point. Dante must have received his inspiration from such a scene. For forty miles to the west, and as far as the eye could see to the north and south, the body of the earth was rent and torn, leaving gorges, buttes and yawning chasms, and everything showing the color of burnt-out fires. It was an awe-inspiring sight.

In this place, one goes from hiking in a tight, craggy canyon to suddenly coming upon a wide-open field of waving buffalo grass. The wind there is deafening, the mountains stretch into the distance, surrounding you on all sides, not one sight of humanity can be seen for miles. The badlands produce a profound feeling of desolation. A feeling that if anything were to happen, only the vultures circling overhead would care. Coming into one of those open spaces was when I had my first close encounter with a buffalo. One of the things I was told by the park ranger before heading out into no-man’s land was to steer clear of these enormous beasts. I was told to maintain at least a quarter-mile distance, yet here I was less than a hundred feet away, close enough to smell its matted reeking hide. After the 2,500 pound bull locked eyes and lowered his head, I backed away quickly, unclipping my pack in case he decided to charge. Luckily, he didn’t. After ten miles of hiking with a 40-pound pack in the 98 degree heat, it became clear that this place was not one to be enjoyed by backpackers. My water and energy had been sapped completely, and I silently conceded my defeat to the rugged hills after one day in the back-country.

The most staggering aspects of the rust belt was the state of its cities. It seemed as though every town center was deserted and desolate. Dust covered all of the window sills, bare headless mannequins remained awkwardly posed for the stray passer-by to gawk at, ‘help wanted’ and ‘going out of business sale’ signs clung to the windows with curled yellow tape, street lamps flickered and cast eerie shadows on the empty sidewalks. No place was this more apparent than the motor city, Detroit. One could only hope that it could some day live up to its motto: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus (we hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes). Urban blight was everywhere you looked. Even the city center was half-filled with burnt-out shells of buildings. Art Deco facades crumbled with neglect and ghosts of the city’s past peered out from hundreds of broken black window frames. It was sad and fascinating at the same time – A rusted phoenix buried in a pile of rubble.

So what could be taken from an excursion into the heart of this lonely prairie? I suppose it served as a filter of sorts. When you’re going a million miles and hour, trying to juggle so many things at once, it’s tough to find time to really think. Being alone with nothing but your thoughts the open road ahead seemed to put everything in perspective. All of the most important things were front and center. There were more than a few times on those old dusty roads that these things appeared so clearly to me. As crazy as the city is, I missed it terribly. During that first bout of agoraphobia in the badlands, I thought about a long stroll down Flatbush Avenue to ground myself. Instead of wind, dust, and desolation, I saw the cool concrete sidewalks, mothers yelling at their children from the windows above, the old black men playing dominoes at the base of stoops, reggae music booming out of tinted windows, and open fire hydrants drenching asphalt that had been relentlessly baked in August’s heat. A prairie dog yipped and snapped my out of the daydream, but not before the fear had dissapated. Whenever it came back, I had thoughts of a wonderfully crowded city to battle the loneliness.

Into the Wild

Posted in Uncategorized on August 13, 2008 by wally426

13-08-2008  Brooklyn, NY

Two quick things that made me smile yesterday –

1. As I was finishing up the last leg of my morning run up death hill, a bike slowly approached from behind. There was an old rasta hunched over the handlebars, ignoring the turns ahead and staring at my feet. He began to say something , but my ipod was still blasting. I paused the song and looked at him quizzically. “Those shoes, they’re good for you”. I nodded my head in approval as he pulled away. Instead of letting him dust me up the hill, I started running harder to keep up with him. “Take me to the top, dread!!! Take me to the top!!”, I yelled. He kept pedaling, I kept pushing. We finally reached the summit, I gave him a pound, and he went on his way. Even though I was on the verge of vomiting, it was awesome.

2. Two old Russian men on the Q train, not saying anything to each other, passing a blackberry back and forth. One of the men suddenly cursed in Russian when the other handed the blackberry back to him, smiling. As they exited the train at Dekalb Avenue, I saw they were both playing virtual chess with the device.

I’ll take those two memories with me on my solo voyage out west. For the next ten days, I’ll be heading from Detroit to Bismarck on a trip into North Dakota’s vast prairie. Needless to say, the post will be a long one when I return. The link below was my inspiration for the trip, hopefully the pictures will be plentiful!

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/01/emptied-north-dakota/bowden-text